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This article was submitted to the QES by Emeritus Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Glasgow, Geoff Moore who says that the UK's top postgraduates are no better than undergraduates at written English.



We must anticipate that more and more British secondary-school teachers — the contemporaries of those graduates we have encountered — will not have acquired a sufficient grounding in the English language in order effectively to teach proper grammar, spelling and punctuation to their pupils.

                                      British education - 2010                                     

DR BERNARD Lamb's findings concerning the standards of written English among undergraduates at Imperial College London are in full accord with my own experiences concerning postgraduate students from both London and Glasgow Universities.  For over 20 years, before I retired from a lifetime's involvement in British academia, I helped to teach a Master's course (MSc) offered in partnership between King's College, London and my own institution (the University Marine Biological Station Millport (UMBSM), a part of London University in Scotland run jointly with Glasgow University).  Early in that period I became so concerned about the standard of English evident in written work that was being submitted for assessment that I designed and presented a remedial Workshop in Scientific Writing for those student groups.

Each year I spent a day at the beginning of their residency at Millport explaining the key skills involved in constructing succinct, accurate scientific prose and bringing issues such as spelling, punctuation, précis-writing and proof-reading to their attention.

I began by demonstrating to them that all was not well in this arena (something about which many students remained initially unconvinced) by posing the question: "How many of you know the difference between its and it's?" (I have even had one student write it's' — presumably just to be on the safe side).  When only about half the people in the audience put up their hands, the students realised that, just perhaps, there was some point to my unanticipated agenda.

I then asked them — without telling them why — to bear with me while we did a short exercise in dictation (in fact, it was a covert spelling test).  I read out the following concocted paragraph of spurious, but unremarkable, apparent ecological content for them to commit to paper (I provided the spellings of the Latin names on the blackboard).

It's clear that the occurrence of the barnacle Chthamalus in the marine environment is attributable to its requirement for exposed rocky shores.  Waves and airborne spray affect the position of the barnacle line, elevating zonal boundaries.  Better able to resist desiccation than Semibalanus, Chthamalus is dependent on sufficient height on the shore to provide necessary refugia for survival.  Whether these two species have complementary distribution patterns on all shores is harder to gauge, since their ecological separation involves accommodating the effects of other factors.  Nevertheless, their distributions illustrate in miniature the competitive forces and spatial constraints to which sedentary species are subject.

I then asked them to swap sheets with their next-door neighbour and distributed the correct version of this innocuous paragraph against which they could check one another's accuracy.

Over the years, I must have repeated this exercise with several hundred postgraduates (news of this particular 'bee in my bonnet' spread to Glasgow University itself, where I was invited to contribute a slimmed-down version to the lunchtime Ph.D.-student training programme supported within the Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences).

I never kept an accurate count of the numbers of students to whom I delivered my various workshop exercises but I do remember that, over the years, only three students ever managed to take down that piece of dictation correctly.  What was interesting was that none of the three successful scribes had received their secondary education in Britain (one was Maltese, one French and one Singaporean).

Few of the others appreciated the spelling mistakes they had made, or understood the significance of correct alternative spellings in inappropriate contexts: occurrence/occurence; affect/effect; airborne/airborn; dependent/dependant; accommodating/acommodating/accomodating; desiccation/dessication; weather/wether/whether; separation/ seperation; complimentary/complementary; miniature/ miniture; gauge/guage; spatial/spacial; sedentary/sedentery/ sedentry being just a few examples of where pitfalls lay in wait.  Some were flabbergasted that words they had written one way all their school lives were spelled incorrectly.

Certainly, the 'enviroment' proved to be a quite familiar concept to many of these avowedly 'green-aware' biologists.  Yet the majority of these students possessed upper second or first class honours degrees from a British university.  They represented the crème de la crème of British educational achievement: the very embodiment latterly of 'educashun, educashun, educashun'.

I trust they all soon went out shopping, as I suggested they did, and bought copies of Dr Lamb's book How to Write about Biology.  As his students, many of mine would counter, if sometimes a little shamefacedly: "Well, you know what I meant."

Not good enough, I'd say, especially when you consider the consequences of muddling a prescribed with a proscribed drug (or undertaking a chemical reaction with a sulphite instead of a sulphate).  Not good enough at all for intelligent people.  Probably we all have words that we have to stop and think about (mine is sieve; I don't know why). And no, spell checkers on computers do not provide the complete, lazy answer.

Long ago, among my Ph.D. students, I developed a reputation for wielding the red pen mercilessly when presented with draft end-of-year reports or thesis chapters. They all, however, (eventually!) expressed their gratitude that I had taken the trouble to correct their work and reported that they had learned mightily from the experience (much of which, in my opinion, they should have assimilated at secondary school).

My wider experience as an external examiner in British universities (both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels) has served only to confirm in me the impression that standards of written English in the British education system have slipped dramatically since my own school days.

Too often now, even research papers submitted by tyro British authors to academic journals contain lax standards of English usage and frequently reveal a poor grasp of vocabulary (if my refereeing experience is anything to go by).  I suspect that the situation that Dr Lamb and I have found to exist, even in top British universities, is only going to get worse.